Last member of people smuggling gang linked to deaths of 39 migrants in Essex lorry convicted

27 November 2023, 14:49

Caolan Gormley was convicted of an offence linked to the deaths of the 39 Vietnamese migrants
Caolan Gormley was convicted of an offence linked to the deaths of the 39 Vietnamese migrants. Picture: Alamy

By Kit Heren

The final member of a people-smuggling gang linked to the deaths of 39 men, women and children in a lorry has been convicted.

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Caolan Gormley, 26, was part of a plot to bring migrants into the UK from Europe three times in October 2019.

Some of the migrants from a failed trip ended up being taken on the run overnight on October 22-23, which resulted in the deaths of the 39 Vietnamese people in the lorry. The dead migrants were found in a lorry park near Purfleet in Essex on the morning of October 23.

Gormley, a haulage boss, had denied being involved, and claimed he thought he was smuggling alcohol into the UK, rather than trafficking people.

But he was found guilty of conspiracy to assist unlawful immigration on Monday, and will be sentenced on Friday.

Read more: People trafficker jailed for more than 12 years - after 39 Vietnamese migrants died in a lorry container

Read more: Essex lorry deaths: Ronan Hughes pleads guilty to manslaughter of 39 migrants

The 39 Vietnamese victims of a people smuggling plot
The 39 Vietnamese victims of a people smuggling plot. Picture: Getty

That brought the total of people convicted over the migrants' deaths to 11.

Prosecutor Ben Holt had earlier told the court how the migrants were charged £10,000 per person for the journey into the UK, exploiting the victims' desperation.

They were loaded into a lorry on mainland Europe, which was loaded onto the back of a lorry and then unloaded once it arrived in the UK.

Gormley was recruited by ringleader Ronan Hughes and sent his driver Christopher Kennedy to do the job.

The haulage boss was involved in three trips, overnight on October 10 to 11, a run on October 14 to 15 that French authorities scuppered, and October 18 to 19, just a few days before the deaths.

Caolan Gormley
Caolan Gormley. Picture: Alamy

Migrants on the first trip were seen jumping out of a lorry on the first trip by residents near Orsett in Essex.

Mr Holt told jurors: "The other trip was thwarted by customs officials in France. Remarkably, the driver on that occasion - Kennedy - was effectively given a slap on the wrists and told to go on his way. The migrants were similarly allowed to go.

"Tragically, some of those migrants would end up in the lorry part of the 39 men, women and children who died during the night (of) October 22 and 23."

On that fatal night, the driver Maurice Robinson picked up a container at Purfleet docks and found all 39 people, aged between 15 and 44, dead.

Robinson was told by Hughes to "give them air quick" but not let them out. The driver called his boss Hughes before dialling 999.

File photo dated 23/10/19 of police activity at the Waterglade Industrial Park in Grays, Essex, after 39 bodies were found inside a lorry container on the industrial estate.
File photo dated 23/10/19 of police activity at the Waterglade Industrial Park in Grays, Essex, after 39 bodies were found inside a lorry container on the industrial estate. Picture: Alamy

Giving evidence in his own trial, Gormley said he was taking a break at a truck stop in Cheshire, on his way to deliver racehorse bedding to Cambridge when he spoke to Hughes.

He said: "He called me the night before and I was returning the call. I remember when he answered he sounded different, panicked, making no sense at all. It was just mumbo jumbo. He was making zero sense."

At 3.46pm, Gormley got a text from his mother in Co Tyrone asking if the truck in the news belonged to one of Hughes's brothers.

He replied: "Don't know and neither do u (sic)."

Gormley told jurors he was trying to stop his mother from "gossiping" because she works in a doctors' surgery and thought there might be "repercussions".

He described his "total disbelief this had happened", adding: "I was just shocked, to be honest."

A memorial to the 39 people who died
A memorial to the 39 people who died. Picture: Alamy

Later the same day, Gormley dumped the burner phone he used to talk to Hughes.

Gormley was asked why he denied "to the bitter end" being the owner of that phone when police interrogated it.

He said: "I lied about it because I didn't want to confess (to) a crime I had committed in relation to alcohol smuggling.

"I had contacted Ronan Hughes on the phone. At that time the news had come out about what happened with the 39 dead and I didn't want any affiliation with that."

Gormley also told jurors he had no reason to question Kennedy's explanation for being caught with migrants in his lorry on October 14.

He said: "Kennedy said he stopped at the supermarket to buy alcohol and cigarettes on his way to the crossing. At that time he was actually covering his tracks for what had happened.

"He just said they must have got in the trailer while he was in the shop. It's a very hot spot for migrants in the Calais area. It's very common. I had no reason not to believe his account."

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Detective Chief Inspector Louise Metcalfe, of the Kent and Essex Serious Crime Directorate, said: "For more than four years, we have never lost sight of the far-reaching impact the events of October 2019 have had – here in Essex and, most acutely, in Vietnam, where families still live with this tragic loss. Today, our thoughts remain with them.

“The journey of those 39 people began 8,000 miles away. It was a journey they thought would bring them hope and a better life in the UK.

“Tragically, that was not to be and on 22 October 2019, the 39 men, women and children aged between 15 and 44 were loaded into the back of a lorry in northern Europe. That lorry was then loaded onto a cargo ship bound for Purfleet in Essex.

“Each one of them husbands and wives, mothers and fathers, sons and daughters.

“Our priority has always been to ensure that those directly involved in the tragic journey overnight between 22 and 23 October are caught, prosecuted and ultimately punished.

“The people who were part of this international network were ruthless in their financial greed – their behaviour and their actions are reprehensible. They have shown no regard for the law and, most importantly, the value of human life.

“Gormley was not a direct participant in the fatal journey, but it has always been clear to us that he was a key part in the wider conspiracy to traffic vulnerable people into the UK. He received payment to traffic and exploit people who were desperate – and who had paid significant sums.”